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The next step for Jeffrey Zeldman: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to the web design pioneer who, in Paul’s words, “designed the aesthetic of the web for a while.” They discuss his history as founder of the design studio Happy Cog and A List Apart Magazine, co-founder of A Book Apart and An Event Apart, and author of, amongst other titles, Taking Your Talent to the Web. They then discuss his newest venture, studio.zeldman, dig deep into the difference between an agency and a studio, and touch, controversially, on the pronunciation of “GIF.”


Rich Ziade: Hey Paul!

Paul Ford: Hey Rich.

Rich: It’s great to see you.

Paul: It’s good to be back.

Rich: It’s good to be back to bring everyone a brand-new episode of Track Changes.

Paul: Special episode today. I’m Paul Ford.

Rich: Rich Ziade.

Paul: And we are the co-founders of Postlight, a product design studio in New York City. Our guest today is someone who has a deep thumbprint on the modern web.

Rich: Is that, is that a thumb? [laughter]

Paul: It is a thumb, I’m looking at his thumb right now. Our guest today is Jeffrey Zeldman, the proprietor of Zeldman Studio?

Jeffrey Zeldman: studio.zeldman.

Paul: studio.zeldman, I’m sorry I got it backwards.

Jeffrey: It’s OK.

Paul: And um…

Rich: But you know, let’s do it backwards.

Paul: Yeah, what do you doing —

Jeffrey: Yeah, because a newly-lauched studio really, it’s good to have the name get out there on a podcast wrong.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: All right.

Jeffrey: So people look it up wrong.

Paul: All right, all right. [laughter]

Jeffrey: I don’t need work. I just do this for the…

Rich: What is studio.zeldman?

Jeffrey: That’s my new design studio, with a few other folks. I left my previous studio and I wanted to start over, so I could do small projects, very hands-on.

Rich: OK.

Jeffrey: And it’s a boutique studio focused on content sites. We can do anything, but it’s mostly content sites, because I make content sites, and I’ve always loved content sites, and that’s what I basically do on the web.

Rich: Right.

Jeffrey: You know, content is a pretty broad definition. Instagram was a content site, so…

Rich: Right.

Jeffrey: But yeah, stuff where either professionals make content or companies make content so that they can promote their business in some fashion.

Rich: Right.

Jeffrey: Or people make content in what’s called an app or a community.

Rich: OK, but let’s, let’s get dive in and get a little more specific here. A design studio could be brochures, but when you say content it could be —

Jeffrey: I don’t —

Rich: Branding. It could be a lot of different things —

Jeffrey: That’s weird —

Rich: What do you focus on?

Jeffrey: A guy on Dribbble just asked if I want to design a brochure for him, which I guess, and that’s cool. I have to write back to him and tell him I don’t do that.

Rich: Right. So what do you do? What do you focus on?

Jeffrey: I’m a web designer, mainly.

Rich: OK.

Jeffrey: And I’ve been doing that since 1995. I was an art director and a musician and a bunch of other stuff before that. A journalist for the Washington Post. I’m very old. I’ve done a lot of things. But in 1995 I started designing websites. Long…well, pretty well-known story. Well-known to the five people that know who I am. And I never look back.

Rich: Right.

Jeffrey: The web was…I think Paul had a similar experience, it just seemed like, didn’t you, Paul?

Paul: I did. I think that we’re…you’d had a career before the web came around. It came around for me when I was in college, so I didn’t think they’d let me do it, is my, what happened to me. It was ’95, ’96, there wasn’t a lot of work. And I remember reading stuff that you were doing and writing and going, like, how do I get to be more in that world?

Jeffrey: Well by 1996, you were, like, running your own severs and stuff, so…

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: So you totally —

Paul: Yeah, but…

Jeffrey: Jumped into that right away.

Paul: But this is the thing, nobody… [sigh]

Jeffrey: Nobody remembers.

Paul: It’s not just that nobody remembers…

Jeffrey: Nobody cares!

Paul: It’s that you see, when you’re young, you see anyone who is doing it and you’re like, I could never do it. And then you go ahead and do it, and you’re like, OK, I’ve done it, but is it cool enough?

Jeffrey: That’s what I liked about the web, right?

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Because so you said I had other careers, but I had other failed careers.

Paul: Sure.

Jeffrey: Several, and some of them were failures because I didn’t work hard enough, some of them I didn’t have the passion, some of them were just unfair crum-houses of, you can’t swear on the podcast, so I’m trying to…

Paul: Yeah, you can…

Rich: You can sneak ’em in here and there…

Jeffrey: I don’t really want to. They were, they were crappy experiences that weren’t fair. And some, uh, I had a drinking problem for a long time, so I…I don’t now because I don’t drink.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jeffrey: But…a drinking problem, so that contributed also, I’m sure, to some of the failure. Had to. But I know what you’re saying. I would look at Prince onstage…

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jeffrey: When I was a young musician and go, I couldn’t do that. Now actually I couldn’t, because he was much more talented than me, but if I had been as talented as him, which I’m vastly not, I still wouldn’t have believed I could do it, for the reason that you say, because there’s a self-esteem barrier that you have to cross…

Paul: How do you even get up on that stage? You see the stairs, but you’re like, how could you get up on them?

Jeffrey: Right. I mean, I did get up onstage.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jeffrey: But at clubs, but not, you know, the point is I think, you’d look at, I’d look at people I admired, Brian Eno, whoever.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jeffrey: David Bowie, and I would go, oh, but I could never be them. They’re magical beings somehow and I’m not. But with the web I didn’t worry about that because it was something you could do in a little cubicle, secretly.

Paul: Sure.

Jeffrey: And…

Rich: Also the David Bowies and Princes of the web hadn’t come to light yet.

Jeffrey: I don’t think there are any…

Paul: Well we’re letting Jeffrey be a little bit modest here —

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Because there was a book you wrote back then which was pretty seminal, and I’m gonna get the first word of the title wrong, but it was Bringing Your Talent to the Web?

Jeffrey: Taking Your Talent to the Web.

Paul: Taking Your Talent to the Web.

Jeffrey: That was — see nobody talks about that book. That’s so long ago.

Paul: But that book was one — just the title of that book alone was a powerful indicator, it was like, hey, you can take your graphic design ability and you can learn this new thing. It’s not all cool kids and big clunky shoes. You know, there’s another thread, too. So you’re putting yourself out there early days. was personal. You have never been shy about being in recovery.

Jeffrey: Right.

Paul: You know, and…

Rich: I don’t know if there’s any facet of Jeffrey that he’s been shy about.

Jeffrey: Oh, there’s lots that I don’t talk about.

Paul: Sure.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Paul: I don’t see you talk about your daughter very much, for example. Like, I think —

Jeffrey: Some.

Rich: Beautiful girl.

Jeffrey: Thank you.

Paul: Yeah, beautiful kid. And like, but you don’t, there’s —

Jeffrey: I don’t talk about my divorce.

Paul: Yeah, there’s certain things that you leave off, and, but in general, like —

Jeffrey: It’s the best stuff. I wish I could. [laughter] It’s the best material.

Paul: I know.

Jeffrey: The part of me that’s a writer would love to do it. Oh my gosh, it’s so good, but…

Rich: You can do it and not put it anywhere.

Jeffrey: No, you…no.

Paul: Yeaaaaah….

Rich: That’s a diary.

Paul: That doesn’t work.

Rich: That’s a diary.

Paul: But wait, here’s a thing that’s happening —

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: That’s happening early days, and still happening with you, which is that you put it out there, and you put all of it out there, including your talent and including your ability as a designer. And you let the chips fall, and then you see what comes back in.

Jeffrey: I think I know what you mean.

Paul: That’s been almost a strategy for you. Not a, not a like a —

Jeffrey: It wasn’t —

Paul: Cunning strategy —

Jeffrey: No, it wasn’t, yeah, it wasn’t a karmic thing, like I was involved in the Web Standards Project.

Paul: Right.

Jeffrey: And at the time, I remember, I won’t say the guy’s name, but there’s a guy, he’s still around, he said, well of course Zeldman and his friends want people to use web standards because they can charge more for their services that way. I was like, what? It didn’t make any sense. I get it, because that is how most people think, and I wish that I did think that way, because at this advanced age I would have tons of dough socked away.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jeffrey: But I don’t, because I didn’t think that way, I was just like, honestly, I thought that it was just great to give it away, because it was so cool.

Rich: And there’s still money to be made…

Jeffrey: Oh yeah.

Rich: Even when you give some of it away.

Jeffrey: Oh yeah yeah yeah. No, I think…

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: But, in fact, some of the money I have made is because I gave stuff away.

Rich: Yep.

Jeffrey: Right? So…

Rich: It’s complicated.

Jeffrey: But I didn’t do it for that reason.

Rich: Sure. Sure.

Jeffrey: And I do advise, like I advise all my students, we both teach at SVA, Paul.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jeffrey: I’m constantly telling them, write. Like even if your primary skill is visual or UX, write.

Paul: Yeah. Communicate.

Jeffrey: It’s really important.

Rich: OK so —

Jeffrey: You asked about my studio.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And you, you had a comment that was fascinating, which was, write it down without publishing it.

Rich: Sure.

Jeffrey: Which —

Paul: I don’t think it’s possible.

Jeffrey: That, see, a writer is motivated by wanting someone else to read it, and if no one else is gonna read it, it’s no good. Like, you wouldn’t even bother.

Rich: Yeah. I can’t even tell…

Jeffrey: I can’t even go somewhere unless I can check in.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: If I’m not checking in — I have a recurring nightmare, honest-to-God, my kid makes fun of me all the time. In this nightmare I’ll be in, like, I’ll be in the Alps, taking this refreshing hike through the Alpine woods and I’ll look down and see this little German village. And I’m like, this is so beautiful, I should take a picture. And then I realize that I don’t have my phone with me, I can’t take a picture, I’m like, [gasp] I can’t take a picture! Wait a minute, I haven’t checked in! I’m all over Eastern Europe and I can’t check in. What — ? And it’s like it destroys the trip for me. And this happens over and over again.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: OK, is that —

Jeffrey: It’s pathetic.

Rich: You’re pretty communicative. You send a lot of things out to the world.

Jeffrey: I think it’s some kind of psychosis, actually. I was reading about this, where like, if other people don’t know about it, it isn’t entirely to you.

Rich: There’s a website, I don’t know if it’s still around, that checked your Twitter stream, checked Jeffrey Zeldman’s Twitter stream, and told you if he was at the dentist or the gym. Do you know about this?

Jeffrey: I have seen that.

Rich: Yeah. Which —

Jeffrey: I don’t go to a dentist as much anymore.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: This is also…

Rich: It’s kind of gone dark a little bit, that site, but it sort of hints at how open you are about your daily life, and whatever’s going on.

Paul: I remember the first, one of the first times I met you, you like to tweet about going to your personal trainer, who was, had a company called Body By Hannah.

Jeffrey: I’m still fat.

Paul: Well me too.

Jeffrey: Not her fault.

Rich: I don’t — we don’t have to use that word.

Paul: Why? That’s actually the most accurate and honest word. [laughter] Don’t worry about it anymore.

Jeffrey: I could say chubby.

Paul: Yeah, once you get over, like, 25, it’s done.

Jeffrey: Pleasingly, pleasingly —

Paul: Plump.

Rich: But…

Paul: Zaftig.

Rich: Look, there are plenty of people who —

Jeffrey: I look like John Belushi, who in the 70s was considered fat, which is weird because now he’s just a normal American.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: I’d, you look at John Belushi, just looks like, oh, that’s a dad.

Rich: It’s a large-framed guy.

Jeffrey: It’s a 40-year-old dad.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: That’s a dad in Brooklyn, that’s a hipster dad in Brooklyn.

Paul: He is now —

Rich: That’s true. Nobody —

Jeffrey: And he was, you know, he had, he suffered emotionally over being so fat, but.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: I look at me in the 70s, when I was a kid, pictures of me and pictures of the people I know and…

Rich: Uh huh.

Paul: You’re just all —

Jeffrey: You watch old movies, like…the people that are considered sexy, like, men and women, like the men take off their shirts and they look like, wow, do those guys work out? They don’t.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: But there’s also no fat on them.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Wait, I remember what it was. It’s the first time I gave you a hug, I went, this is the Body By Hannah. It was actually very, it was very connected for me.

Rich: That’s very strange.

Paul: I was like, oh —

Rich: That’s a very strange statement.

Paul: I’ve read about this body!

Rich: That’s a very strange statement.

Paul: I had this awareness of you, and then physically, you’re very tactile, you’re a very generous person, and I was just like, this is it! This is the body!

Jeffrey: That’s great. Hannah is changing her…I think she’s changing her Twitter tag now.

Paul: Oh yeah?

Jeffrey: Yeah, if people put all this together. I mean, she should, because…

Rich: But you guys, you look good, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks.

Rich: Let’s not beat the hell out of each other here. Everybody’s looking great.

Paul: No, I just, I just remember that as this weird connective thing where I’d been reading and aware and then suddenly I was like, oh, here’s the corporal reality, and it really had lined up — like, here’s an interesting thing: the boundaries between your public persona, whether this is good for you or not, and what you are in person, there’s no, there’s no real blurring. Like, the guy that I met and the guy I’d been reading are the same person.

Jeffrey: I think there are people who think I’m a really bad guy. And that like, and I’m nothing like the person on…

Paul: People hate, people hate Rich.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Oh OK.

Paul: Yeah, they do.

Jeffrey: I have, the people, people I thought were friends, even. Not many, but a few of them —

Rich: You know, I think —

Jeffrey: I don’t, I don’t get it.

Rich: I think if you, if you reach a certain point where you’re gonna speak to, and connect with, or at least be heard by a certain number of people, there’s a carve-out that’s just gonna happen around that. Look, you know, we’re being a little inside baseball here, but Jeffrey, he founded one of the better-known agencies in web design.

Jeffrey: Happy Cog.

Rich: Happy Cog. He also founded A List Apart.

Paul: Very significant conference —

Rich: An Event Apart, which is still, to this day, a very prominent web design. I mean —

Jeffrey: Co-founded An Event Apart and A Book Apart.

Rich: Co-founded An Event Apart and A Book Apart.

Jeffrey: But founded A List Apart.

Rich: So look, you, there’s a certain level of status here that comes with that, and what also comes with that status is that you’re a piece of shit to a certain percentage of that population. That is just how it goes.

Jeffrey: I think sometimes you do things —

Rich: Unless there is maybe —

Jeffrey: Realize, I might have said something insensitive, or done — I mean, I’m sure I did.

Rich: You’re a pretty straight shooter. Like, let’s, lets — you’re not one to be like, oh, I gotta make sure not to hurt Rich’s feelings. You pretty much say it like it is, which I actually respect and appreciate, but some people just…they didn’t get the proper…

Jeffrey: I do that with you, I don’t do that with everybody.

Rich: OK.

Jeffrey: I’m tactful with most people.

Rich: OK.

Jeffrey: Honestly.

Rich: OK.

Jeffrey: But I just, I just gauged you as someone…

Rich: That you can —

Jeffrey: I could talk to —

Rich: Talk straight to —

Paul: It is very true. That’s true about us.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I’m used to being beat in the head by 2×4.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I don’t even notice it at this point.

Rich: And you know, we’re talking about stuff like, hey it’s early days, it’s the web, we stuck our, you know, foot out? Foot out?

Jeffrey: We put our hands in the cement.

Rich: We put our hands in the cement to some extent, and we’re just sort of figuring it out. But let’s, it’s worth noting, again, as an outsider, you know, getting to know you guys, not by meeting you but through the work you were doing, it was good work. It was smart, intelligent work. You’re a good writer, Jeffrey, and the work you put out, you rejected one of my articles, on A List Apart, and then for about six weeks you were a piece of shit to me, but that’s how, that’s normal.

Jeffrey: Yeah…

Rich: But the quality —

Jeffrey: That was my editors, I’m sure.

Rich: The quality — and they’re good people, I’m being silly.

Jeffrey: No, I’m not blaming them, they, they saved me.

Paul: No, God —

Rich: They do exceptional work.

Jeffrey: They saved me.

Rich: Right.

Paul: They were absolutely right to reject that.

Jeffrey: Because I would say yes to everything.

Paul: Yeah. Aw, it’s so hard. People come to you with hopes and dreams and you’re like, I’m gonna have to destroy that hope and dream.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Rich: And I’ll tell you what was important here was that you brought the standard of quality to a community that pretty much didn’t have the expectation. The design, web design and web development community —

Jeffrey: The worst —

Rich: Wasn’t thinking that good-quality essays should really exist in their world.

Paul: That’s true.

Jeffrey: People — well in terms of content that’s still a problem, Huffington Post, and designers at the time, I mean, like, there were two things, I think. One was a lot of people who had no experience in design or programming or human factors or any of that stuff were becoming web designers, which is cool, and empowering, but it means that there was a certain quality level that wasn’t there, which is OK because the browsers wouldn’t have supported if it was.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Right? It’s kind of like people who couldn’t design their way out of a paper bag, but there were only two fonts, so that’s OK, kind of thing?

Rich: Right.

Jeffrey: I still managed to make really ugly sites when there was only two fonts, but…but then the other thing, I think, is that well like, let’s say at agencies, the way they used to throw their least-talented people, or the ones they perceived as the least talented on like the match packs and the hats and, you know, here’s the talented person or here’s the person that we’re in bed with, that person’s gonna do the TV commercials, and here’s the print campaign, we’ll give that to this other team that seams to be coming up. And then there’s a whole bunch of other crap.

Paul: Ah, there’s a brutal and very well-known hierarchy in advertising.

Jeffrey: And web is below that.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Jeffrey: Web is below the match packs.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: Oh, and even below that were the banner ads, actually. It went web page, then banners.

Jeffrey: Right. Have you ever done ‘em? I had a client where I had to do them.

Paul: Oh sure. One of my best friends is an absolutely extraordinary banner ad designer. He’s been doing them for 20 years. He just never cared, and he turned it into a great business for himself. There’s all these niches out there. Now you stayed straight in the mainstream and got very focused for a couple years there on standards.

Jeffrey: I’ve never been called mainstream before. Thank you.

Paul: You are, you — honestly, you defined the aesthetic for the web for a while. I think —

Jeffrey: Wow.

Paul: It’s too big now, there’s no single —

Jeffrey: No, nobody can.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Paul: But there was a point where you were pretty much — you and a few other people were canonical. And everybody was in that same orbit, you know, there was the Adaptive Path, and people like you, and…

Jeffrey: Dan Cederholm.

Paul: Yeah. There’s a pretty small core of human beings who said, this is how websites should look, and everybody saw the websites they were making and said, yeah all right, looks good.

Jeffrey: They didn’t do it out of ego, they were just — everybody that did that teaching was just turned on and wanted to share.

Paul: I think a lot of it too it just, like, wow, a lot of this is really bad and we should be sharing information more efficiently. Like, it did feel very positive. I mean, of course there’s ego. It’s good to do good work and have everybody say you’re doing good work. That part’s awesome. But no, the sense that I had back then wasn’t one about ownership.

Jeffrey: No.

Paul: It was about, you know, how can we make this a better and more inclusive medium, and then the standards stuff came in there, because it was about how more people can access this data.

Jeffrey: Also I think that still goes on, I mean, look at all the libraries there are out there, and all the frameworks. For better or worse. Look at all the stuff that, I mean, it’s like almost everybody that you know has worked on a framework or do a tool that they’ve given away.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jeffrey: That’s kind of what people do. And that is so unique to this profession or these related professions, because I know when I was in advertising everything was secret.

Paul: Oh yeah.

Jeffrey: You couldn’t tell someone what you were working on.

Rich: Interesting.

Jeffrey: You’d get fired.

Paul: No one every erred on the side of transparency in other industries. It’s very unusual.

Jeffrey: If you went drinking with your best friend who worked at another agency, and at a certain point you said, [whispers] well we’re pitching Coke, you were gonna get — it was gonna get back to you and you’re fired.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jeffrey: You’re fired and you won’t work for a year.

Rich: Interesting.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And obviously I’m not gonna tell you who I’m pitching right now at my studio, but aside from that, and you’re not gonna tell me — you’re in the product business, so I’m curious…

Rich: We’re pretty open.

Jeffrey: You do stuff for clients, though.

Paul: We’re pretty open, yeah, we do quite a bit for clients.

Jeffrey: Open once you’ve done something, but do you say, like…

Rich: Yeah. We don’t broadcast…

Jeffrey: The Olympic Committee, it’s between us and Big Spaceship and we think we’ll get it because we’re doing so and so? No —

Rich: Oh, no, we don’t go to that —

Jeffrey: You don’t do that.

Paul: No, that would be —

Jeffrey: Nobody does that.

Paul: No, I mean, what we’d say — a good example is that it’s a matter of record that we’re doing a big rebuild for The Village Voice. That’s in public. So we talk about that we’re doing that, and then we would kind of stop there.

Rich: But when we were competing —

Jeffrey: Once you’d had it —

Rich: We didn’t announce —

Jeffrey: Sure.

Rich: Yeah, when we were competing we weren’t talking about it, for sure.

Paul: Part of that’s just tact. You know, just sort of like…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: You just don’t want to be in a position where…

Rich: Tweeting that nonsense out. “Hope we get this one!”

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Well of course. But that aside, sharing and you know, we built this framework for the US Olympics Committee, and we call it Diving Board. Here it is.

Rich: Right.

Jeffrey: Nobody objects to that.

Paul: No, and —

Rich: That’s kind of the — it’s sort of how the open-source communities intersected with sort of this evolution of the advertising world.

Paul: That’s very true.

Rich: It’s kind of weird, it’s sort of this blending of cultural…

Jeffrey: What do advertis — advertising is nothing like this.

Rich: No, we are descendants, to some extent —

Jeffrey: OK.

Rich: Of advertising, right? I mean, we are…you know. Postlight’s great-uncle was an ad agency.

Jeffrey: Ah.

Paul: There’s some of that DNA, that’s real.

Jeffrey: Maybe, maybe.

Rich: No doubt about it.

Jeffrey: I did learn a lot in advertising, good and bad.

Rich: Sure.

Jeffrey: Things to do and things not to do.

Rich: I mean, look, in the end —

Jeffrey: I worked for some brilliant people.

Paul: And the good thing about advertising as a business is it really does tear away a lot of pretension, because you just gotta get a headline that will sell the Cornflakes.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Paul: And that is, those lessons have translated for me into things like navigation, thinking through the, the site architecture, the overall way the content needs to be clear and tight, like, there are really good lessons there. They’re not all the lessons, by far. The web is a different medium than straight-up advertising.

Jeffrey: To me, I’m thinking about the pitch side, right? As I was going through Mad Men, the show, I had an agency of my own at that time, and you saw the prep work behind a pitch, and profiling the personalities that were gonna be in the room, and how you were gonna message them, and how you were gonna get them to gain confidence. It was, it’s not that different. I mean, it’s a long sell, usually it’s, you know, relationship building and confidence building, and what you’re capable of, and showing off your portfolio. That, I mean, everything I just said applies in, I guess you could say advertising is a facet of it, big consulting is another facet of it, which is sort of like, trust us and we’re really smart.

Jeffrey: It’s client services.

Paul: Client services.

Rich: It’s client services, exactly. So that, you know, these are pieces…

Jeffrey: Graphic design, they’re all, yeah.

Rich: That’s right, that’s right.

Jeffrey: By the way, we’re launching our portfolio in a few days, because we launched the site without a portfolio.

Rich: So let’s…

Paul: Do you enjoy client services?

Jeffrey: Yes.

Paul: I do, too.

Jeffrey: I do.

Paul: And it’s a little hard to convey. Rich does as well, even though he goes back and forth on it some days. But like…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I think basically deep down there’s just something very satisfying about setting up the relationship, getting the work done, and then you kind of walk away for a while and they call you back a couple months later and they’re like, hey what about this? And a couple dozen of those floating in your life is very stimulating and it makes me very happy to have those relationships out there.

Rich: Well they are truly relationships.

Jeffrey: Yeah. At times we’ve been guilt-tripped about it too, I think. At times, design goes through this period of like, a real designer just does product, just does their own product.

Paul: That’s right. Well —

Jeffrey: Just an entrepreneur, and client services is so 1999, or whatever. I don’t know. I mean, design without a client, it’s not really design.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I think what people would have us do is go out, raise money, and build our own products and take all the risk and just go for it, as opposed to this thing where we’re kind of like doing our own stuff and working for clients. Like I think that’s —

Jeffrey: Which is what all of us are doing.

Paul: Yeah. That’s all, all three of us in this room, and I think that’s a more, that’s a purer story that people find more exciting and interesting than this sort of hybrid business where we’re communicating and so on. I just like, I think this works.

Jeffrey: And at a certain point, your product might take over, or your client services might take over, like, my friend Jason Fried in Chicago.

Paul: Right.

Jeffrey: At a certain point they were like, OK, we’re all in — I mean, at one point they had one of the best agencies.

Paul: That’s 37signals.

Jeffrey: 37signals, they were fantastic.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: They still are, but at a certain point, it’s like, you know what —

Rich: Do they still do client services?

Jeffrey: No. Absolutely none.

Rich: They do none.

Jeffrey: No, not for years.

Rich: So they’re full product.

Jeffrey: For years, they went full product —

Rich: I remember that announcement.

Jeffrey: But the suite of products, and then they basically got rid of all their other products except Basecamp.

Paul: Now they’re the makers of Basecamp, and…

Jeffrey: And they’re called Basecamp. They named their company after the product, they renamed their company.

Paul: So they did the full transition. Client services, got their skills where they wanted them to be, launched a suite of successful products —

Jeffrey: To help them with client services, initially.

Paul: That’s right.

Jeffrey: They made Basecamp and Campfire and the other stuff because they were doing client services and the tools that they had access to didn’t work the way their brains worked.

Paul: Right.

Rich: And Basecamp, I mean, the others were modestly successful. Basecamp was a breakout success, and they said, you know what, let’s just, let’s focus, and hone in on this product and they cleaned their plate, which is, you know, one of the wisest things you can do. To get all that clutter out of there.

Jeffrey: They also, I mean, so Jason and one of his partners, they have a New York Times best-selling business book. Not Taking Your Talent to the Web. I mean, look, you know —

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Hundreds of thousands of copies sold, like.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Actual money.

Paul: What’s the title of it, I can’t remember.

Rich: Rework.

Jeffrey: Rework.

Paul: Rework. That’s right.

Jeffrey: OK.

Paul: They branded the hell out of themselves that way, yeah.

Jeffrey: They’re all of a piece, they’re like, if you, it’s like, I used to think people’s bodies were, like, baloney, and if you cut it would all be the same, it would be that same tan stuff all the way through.

Paul: Until you were in your 30s and then you realized.

Jeffrey: Yeah. Until I started working out.

Paul: OK.

Jeffrey: And I realized there were muscles. [laughter] Bones. But before that, but they’re that way. They’re like the same all the way through. So their product reflects this —

Rich: Who they are, yeah.

Jeffrey: The same thinking they put in their book, and they’re like, I use Basecamp 3 a lot, and Jason Fried was like, there’s six things any business has to do, like —

Paul: That’s the thing, he’s like so good at communicating those, like, and look, I’m gonna be honest, I roll my eyes at it a little bit, because I’m just like, oh, the six things, there they are, there’s six. [laughter] Hmmm. Except that the more I’m in this business, the more I realize you’ve got to get it down, you’ve got to boil it down to that. Because otherwise you’re really gonna be talking to the same small group of people who…you go out in the world without ambiguity and with a very clear, simple statement, and then later you can add some of the shading to it, as you talk to more and more people.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: But they’re very good. Like, Rework as a, is an articulation of that specific philosophy, in a way that you could give it to, like, a high school student, and it was —

Rich: Yeah, I was about to say, there was, there’s a plain-English accessible quality to their stuff.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: All their stuff. Their writing, even had it —

Jeffrey: They’re great writers.

Rich: Their voice on their blog was always, you know, really widely followed, because it just, there’s sort of, almost like a blue-collar aesthetic to their style.

Jeffrey: Jason Fried, yeah, he comes from that background a little bit. I do, too.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And he helped me with the website.

Paul: Oh, interesting.

Rich: It’s funny, I think of Chicago, and I think of Detroit. I think of just…factories, for some reason, when I think of 37signals, it’s this bizarre association that I’ve created in my head.

Paul: Well there’s a real interesting Chicago scene, right? There was 37signals…

Jeffrey: It’s mostly agencies in Chicago.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: There’s not many little studios…

Paul: Coudal Partners…um…

Jeffrey: Who are now mostly almost exclusively doing the books.

Paul: Field Notes?

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Paul: Yeah, so that’s Field Notes. There was, what was it, Threadless, which was Harper Reed. There’s a real cohort that was making these things in Chicago, and they were kind of all friends, and I’m assuming still are. Adrian Holovaty’s still there, from Django.

Jeffrey: EveryBlock.

Paul: Yeah, EveryBlock was there, and there’s, there was —

Jeffrey: Which was also Adrian.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And Gapers Block, which is a content site much like…

Paul: Right.

Jeffrey: One of the ones you used to write for that was in Brooklyn? They may still exist…

Paul: The Morning News?

Jeffrey: Yes.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: They still exist, right?

Paul: Oh yeah, that cohort was — so we were, you know, The Morning News was good buds with, like, Coudal Partners, and then they started The DECK, which became an ad network. Like, it was a different model, and a little, it just seemed a little more chill. And New York is just, I mean, we just…

Jeffrey: So, so —

Rich: Well there’s always a meat grinder, like, three feet away from you in New York.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: I think that’s called your rent.

Rich: No that’s —

Jeffrey: When you’ve got a pay $38,000 a month for a studio rent or something —

Rich: All of it, all of it.

Paul: Someone once pointed out that WeWork is subsidizing the New York startup scene. Like, you can get a fairly cheap office, and you can make it work inside of a WeWork space.

Jeffrey: I’m thinking of moving there, actually, because I’m spending $9,000 a month now, and I’m not billing to that level.

Paul: Sure. So that totally makes sense to me, that you might wanna do that. They’re nice spaces, lots of glass, you’d find a home, and there’d be a nice community around you.

Rich: They’re nice off — yeah, they’re really nice spaces.

Jeffrey: And the same neighborhood.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Possibly be the same neighborhood I’m in now.

Paul: And for what, like less, like a third of what you’re paying.

Jeffrey: I was thinking about it today. I was thinking, like, right now I am subsidizing some of my co-tenants. Why should I be doing that when I can’t afford it when these people actually have capital invested and they can.

Paul: Yeah, I think that — and your co-tenants could come along and get WeWorks to the left or right of you if they wanted to.

Jeffrey: Yeah, yeah, I know.

Paul: So they’re sort of subsidizing this whole scene, but the raw New York real estate costs are ridiculous. And it’s sort of this, you know, every time we talk about a startup scene in this city and how it’s all gonna work, you need some form of income. If we were gonna go do product development just out of the blue, we’d have a huge cost to cover before we’d made our first hire.

Jeffrey: You need client services.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: New York is a client services town.

Rich: Well that’s our industry —

Jeffrey: Silicon Valley made its own industries. It was like it was a new place, there was nothing going on. There were, like, some banana farmers.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And peach farmers, and then they started making computers, right?

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: And so, but in New York, it was like, Grey Advertising was formed here in, like, 1802 or something, right before the original New York Times building burned.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: I mean, there’s just this ancient…there’s rich jerks and then there’s people working for them. That goes back forever. [laughter]

Paul: Grey Advertising’s still around.

Jeffrey: They are.

Paul: That’s the thing…

Jeffrey: It was actually two Jews, and they —

Paul: I mean that’s the story of about 80% of the businesses in New York City. [laughter]

Jeffrey: OK. It was two Jews and they didn’t want to call it, like, Saperstein & Schleperstein or whatever, because of anti-Semitism.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: So they were sitting around in their grey office looking at the grey walls going, what should we call the place?

Rich: Is that really the story?

Jeffrey: That’s the story, because I worked for Grey Entertainment and they make you learn the…

Paul: The history.

Jeffrey: The fabled lore.

Rich: That’s funny.

Jeffrey: Yes. And then the other thing?

Rich: And it’s G-R-E-Y, right?

Jeffrey: Yeah, like, which is how I spell it, anyway.

Rich: Oh.

Jeffrey: I hate the other one.

Paul: G-R-A-Y is the American spelling.

Jeffrey: I know, it bothers me.

Paul: E-Y is…yeah.

Jeffrey: I, serial commas forever, and G-R-E-Y.

Paul: Yeah, I’m a serial comma…

Jeffrey: And “jif.” Sorry.

Paul: Really?

Rich: Mmmmm.

Jeffrey: But…I know.

Rich: Another episode.

Paul: I think we just let that go, you know. [laughter]

Jeffrey: Yeah. I know I should —

Paul: Why the hell can’t we all get along?

Jeffrey: It’s only because I, I…it didn’t make sense when I learned it, but I learned it in 1995, and I was like, is that really how he pronounces it, and at the time, that’s what everyone said, because everyone else from that time is dead now, but I’m not, and…it’s hard to unlearn. Now I feel like I’m making a mistake when I say “gif,” even though…anyway.

Paul: You know what, just whatever the hell, whatever consonant feels right.

Jeffrey: Here’s the other Grey part, here’s the other Grey part: they spent $2 million on a design studio to update their brand, and they came back with the same logo, but they made one of the letters orange.

Paul: Yeaaaaaah.

Jeffrey: It was grey with an orange letter.

Paul: Yes! That, to me, that’s $2 million well spent. I love it!

Jeffrey: I would’ve done it for half. [laughter]

Paul: I know. It’s so good.

Jeffrey: That’s what people, when people think of design, when people think of graphic design, like, I mean, some look at it reverently, like, there was so much genius in that gesture, and other people go, wow, I wish I’d gotten into that business.

Paul: I mean, look.

Jeffrey: And you don’t, it’s like saying I wish I were a movie —

Rich: Kind of a hindsight thing, though. I have to say.

Jeffrey: What?

Rich: You just look at, oh, they colored a letter orange, but you’re seeing the outcome, right, and…

Paul: There was a research deck that had 240 slides.

Rich: Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah.

Jeffrey: But you know why —

Rich: It’s like the new Verizon’s a check-box.

Jeffrey: People think we’re dull.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: Check-box.

Jeffrey: Let’s show that we can be a little unexpected. It’s like…

Paul: That’s right.

Rich: OK there is not a lot of time left. I do wanna hear about studio.zeldman.

Paul: That’s right. [laughter]

Rich: And what the vision is for it, and what the plan is for it.

Paul: First of all, who knew that .zeldman was a top-level domain name?

Rich: Who knew? Is it studio.zeldman?

Paul: So that’s, you spent about $140,000 there with that TLD. [laughter]

Rich: Convinced ICANN…

Jeffrey: Not yet.

Paul: What is the actual URL?


Paul: Oh, OK.

Jeffrey: I originally just wanted to call it “Studio” and I had this whole design idea —

Rich: That’s heavy.

Jeffrey: That was very…

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that was very…

Rich: OK.

Jeffrey: It was like water.

Paul: Hey, what’s the difference —

Jeffrey: It was completely neutral.

Paul: What’s the difference between a studio and an agency? [someone makes a cartoon falling noise]

Jeffrey: In my mind…a studio has a more design feeling to it? And it’s smaller.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: Hmmm.

Jeffrey: And more hands-on? And a little less consultant-y. In my mind. In my mind. Possibly nothing.

Paul: I also get — to me the sale cycle on a studio feels more consultive, and less, like…

Rich: I think it’s “consultative.”

Paul: Consul — consultative.

Rich: I love correcting Paul Ford’s grammar.

Paul: Thank you, thank you.

Rich: It’s one of my favorite things.

Paul: Like an agency has a real pitch cycle, they start the work, essentially, you know.

Jeffrey: That’s terrible.

Paul: It is, right?

Jeffrey: Well a design agency doesn’t do that.

Paul: No, but I mean…

Jeffrey: A design agency doesn’t do spec.

Paul: But a studio feels like you come in and you’re like, you look at rectangles together and think, what should be there?

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: I think both. I mean, Happy Cog bills itself as an agency, but it’s the same thing.

Paul: OK.

Jeffrey: But…

Rich: Can I share my distinction?

Jeffrey: Yeah, please.

Rich: A studio stands on its own. It has its own philosophy, its own kind of mission. An agency is pretty much willing to jump in under any banner. They are agents. They are willing to service you. Whereas a studio actually has a position about how things should be created and what they should look like and what they represent.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: So I think it’s a little more independent, is the word I’m looking for.

Jeffrey: That’s interesting.

Rich: That might be my own read…

Jeffrey: I don’t see Milton Glaser having an agency.

Rich: You don’t see who?

Jeffrey: I don’t see Milton Glaser having an agency, you’re right, I see him having a studio, which he does.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Jeffrey: Right? And I see…

Rich: There’s a little —

Jeffrey: Paul Rand having a studio. I don’t see him having an agency.

Rich: Yeah, yeah.

Paul: It’s also like, the work is supposed to —

Jeffrey: But Pentagram, is that an agency or a studio? At a certain size, doesn’t it have to be called an agency?

Rich: I think you could use either word.

Jeffrey: They’re just —

Rich: Pentagram just dropped everything.

Jeffrey: They’re just Pentagram.

Paul: Pentagram.

Rich: They’re just Pentagram.

Jeffrey: They’re just Pentagram.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: They’re like Cher. [laughter]

Paul: But I have to assume —

Jeffrey: Or Prince.

Rich: They are the Cher of branding.

Paul: But I’ve got to imagine that a lot of their leads are inbound, rather than, you know, it’s people calling them because they have a certain reputation.

Rich: That is a brand equity that has taken many years to cultivate.

Jeffrey: Oh yeah.

Paul: And so that’s a studio ethos.

Rich: No doubt.

Paul: So studio.zeldman: what if I wanna know more about studio.zeldman.

Rich: Can they email you? Can people email you?

Jeffrey: So if you go to the site,, currently it’s a microsite.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: Kind of an app.

Jeffrey: Uh…maybe.

Paul: It’s a little bit of a web app because it actually, it helps you estimate your project.

Jeffrey: Right. Right.

Rich: I would download Zeldman in the app store.

Paul: Aw, it’d be good.

Jeffrey: Well, I like to say, so, for instance, you know that if you have a website and you make a favicon and what’s that Apple icon called? For like, the phone?

Paul: Oh, the touch icon? Yeah, I can’t remember.

Jeffrey: Yeah. They gave it some…

Paul: We’re talking meta tags now, people.

Rich: It’s getting heavy.

Jeffrey: OK, you do that — basically you download, it’s an app. I go, you know, when people say what’s next at An Event Apart, like who’s the next speaker, I go, oh, let me look at our app, and I hit this button on my screen, which opens our website.

Paul: Sure.

Jeffrey: Because, you know, we could be doing the semantics of website versus app, and…all that stuff is…angels dancing on the head of a pin, but, OK, so it’s a one-page site that is an app because it has an estimator. Not an estimator, but a thing that helps you sort of figure out if you want to work with us and qualify yourself a little bit.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: So when we launched we didn’t have a portfolio. It was just like…because it was complicated as to things from Happy Cog that I could or couldn’t bring, and lots of stuff, you know, lots of…and what my partners experienced, and what they could bring, and all that. So…but we’re launching that in a few days and we’re launching an “About” section, just like…so we’ll actually have a nav bar.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: With two items on it, which kind of makes me sad, in a way. Because there was something so pure about it. And it was just…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It’s not micro anymore.

Jeffrey: Here’s the other thing, here’s the other thing: I was really influenced by Jen Simmons’s — well, she’s working on this thing called Layout Land, but she’s really into finding…inspiration from, like, old print magazines and stuff, like real graphic design for the web, and real art direction for the web, and so I wanted to do that, and I wanted to not do the site that everybody does now. I wanted to not do…

Paul: Parallax scrolling and…

Jeffrey: Yeah, and all of that. Right, so, and like, you know, the big image or the big background video and then the three columns of this thing, and…and I loved doing that 10 years ago when no, when people weren’t doing it, when only like a few people were doing it. But now that it’s basically, it’s like something off the shelf that you plug stuff into?

Paul: Yeah, you can do that on Squarespace, yeah.

Jeffrey: It’s really heavy.

Rich: Yeah.

Jeffrey: It takes a long time to load, all the responsive stuff’s been figured out for you. I worked on that with Noël Jackson, one of my partners, and Roland Dubois, who are both designers and developers, brilliant. Roland’s from, he was at Byte Dept, and I used to wish we worked together, and then he and his partner folded Byte Dept and I was like ah! Gotcha! And Noël is also a DJ and a photographer and we’re working with Mica McPheeters and a couple other people. Mica McPheeters is a content person, editor, writer, so that we have basically this super-smart team that’s very small that can go in and do work.

Rich: Kill it.

Jeffrey: Yeah, and when you hire us, you’re hiring us.

Rich: Right.

Jeffrey: Which is the way the, the old studio was, originally, right? Like, here’s the five of us, and we’re, we think we’re good at what we do, and you’re gonna get us. And when you grow at a certain point, you can’t do that anymore. At a certain point, you’re there for a meeting and to shake the client’s hand, and then at the end when it’s time to get the money, you should up again with a cigar in your mouth, but it in between, you’re not necessarily able to be that hands-on or that involved, because you’re pitching the next thing or whatever. So I wanted to get back to doing it. I really wanted to get back to doing it, yeah.

Rich: Very cool.

Paul: All right, so.

Jeffrey: So we got some clients…

Rich: A purified Jeffrey.

Paul: So you’ve got clients, you’re going.

Jeffrey: We’ve got, we’re going, yeah. We’ve got two clients. We’re working on our third. We really like non-profits, organizations like that, stuff where you feel good when you go to bed, that your skills actually helped maybe stop rape, or stop hunger, or something, in some really tiny tiny way.

Paul: Making progress.

Jeffrey: Yeah, like denting.

Paul: Yeah.

Jeffrey: Chipping away at the huge rock that’s crushing the life out of everybody.

Paul: Well we’re old enough now to know we’re not gonna solve it.

Jeffrey: Right.

Paul: But it’s good to help.

Rich: Still feels good, and it’s good to help.

Jeffrey: It’s good to help. I think everybody, were you ever so young you thought…actually, yeah, when I was 20…

Paul: Naw, when you’re in your early 20s, sometimes you think that you can solve these problems.

Jeffrey: If everyone would just become a vegetarian, then…

Paul: Yeah. You’re, this website is gonna be the one. If everyone could just read this.

Jeffrey: Well I wasn’t doing websites when I was 20. They didn’t exist. I was churning butter and grooming Mr. Lincoln’s beard. But the thing is that I remember thinking, like, I was living with a feminist, I was a feminist, and I lectured other feminists about shaving their legs because that’s surely the definition of a male feminist. Someone who tells women what they should do with their bodies, jeez Louise.

Paul: Well you were ahead of your time, as a man —

Jeffrey: I was so embarrassed and ashamed. [laughter]

Rich: I think we should close it on that note.

Jeffrey: Thanks. That’s great.

Rich: That’s a strong way to close the show.

Jeffrey: I mansplained.

Paul: You mansplained.

Jeffrey: I mansplained. [laughter] Seriously, I said, like, you shouldn’t shave your legs, that’s just patriarchy.

Paul: Yeah, you were…

Jeffrey: I explained to a woman who felt like shaving her legs that she shouldn’t because she was, because she was being subservient, God forgive me.

Paul: You were the living embodiment of Twitter 25 years ago. [laughter]

Jeffrey: Yes. Yes. I was a…yes.

Paul: Well look, Jeffrey, we love you.

Rich: Yes. It’s great to see you.

Jeffrey: In spite of what I just said. Thank you.

Paul: No, we love you. We’re glad you’re here. And we will try to, to help studio.zeldman any way we can.

Jeffrey: Well I will try to help Postlight any way I can.

Rich: Awesome.

Jeffrey: I need some products. Can you boys whip me up some products?

Paul: We’ll get you some products right now.

Rich: We got studio. [laughter]

Jeffrey: Whip me up some products. I’ll do some studio stuff, you do some product stuff.

Paul: It’s gonna be good.

Jeffrey: It’s gonna be awesome.

Paul: Aw man, this internet’s really happening.

Jeffrey: It is.

Paul: Let’s get it. Let’s go out there.

Jeffrey: Somebody brought a banana.

Paul: That’s my banana.

Jeffrey: That’s good, are you gonna have that later, or are you just carrying it around?

Paul: I’m gonna need some potassium after this.

Jeffrey: OK.

Rich: We’ll leave it to the producers to decide if that gets edited out or not. …. Long pregnant pause.

Paul: It’s always kind of deep when you see that guy, man.

Rich: It’s heavy. There’s a lot there.

Paul: Sometimes, sometimes, it depends, but sometimes you just are like, [whooshing noise] whoa.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Because it’s, you know, it’s all on the table.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: The recovery’s on the table, the business is on the table, the…

Rich: Yeah, and you know, I have to say, constantly challenges what he’s about, that’s, I think, the strength of Jeffrey. He never leans back and says, I’ve arrived.

Paul: No —

Rich: He’s always rebooting and thinking about, well, I gotta keep changing.

Paul: No and it’s true and there’s a lot of…you know, you’re looking at somebody with 300,000-plus Twitter followers and sort of all these indicators around him, but who, if you talk to him, we didn’t even get to that stuff, if you walk to him, you’d think he was just, like, kind of working off the street. That he, he was like, selling hot dogs.

Rich: Yeah. I mean, that’s…there’s a humility to it. I mean, there’s no doubt.

Paul: So we wanna thank Jeffrey Zeldman for being on Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, the product design studio in New York City. I’m Paul Ford.

Rich: Rich Ziade.

Paul: We’re the co-founders, and if you wanna get in touch with us, send an email to Check us out on the internet at

Rich: Cheers.

Paul: Bye.